Instagram and the Public Individual

Newspapers have today aired the story concerning the photo-sharing website Instagram. The company recently made its own contribution to the flurry of changes to privacy policies on social networking sites. If the news is to be believed, what seems to set this apart from other changes in the terms of service is the implication that Instagram would from next year have a global license to any images posted on facebook without any royalty implications. In other words, under the new terms of service, Instagram could sell all the images users put up on the webpage.
Instagram has since denied it is asserting any commercial rights from the new terms of service. Be that as it may, the news has been met with anger from Instagram users, with threats to close down Instagram accounts being howled from the rooftops. However, the peals of rage have been qualified by statements from other quarters defending the right of Istagram to incorporate users into its profit generation structure, arguing that Instagram is a business after all.
What to make of this? Today’s story seems to bring to a head a number of cultural developments that academics and internet practitioners have theorised (and probably secretly hoped would never come to pass).
  1. At its most superficial level, this story seems to be the natural progression of a long acquiescence by users to terms of service laid down by social networking sites whereby what is put up on those sites becomes the property of the company whose website it is. If one owns something, one might as well put it to use…
  2. At a subtler, political level, we can see in this story another stage in the blurring into irrelevance the line demarcating the private and the public spheres. Indeed, as the internet theorist Clay Shirky once observed in an interview, the introduction of social networking has effectively weighted the social scale well and truly in favour of publicising everything, including the most private. The photograph, which the cultural critic Roland Barthes once associated with a profoundly private world, is now for Shirky and social networking sites like Instagram, shamelessly public.
  3. At a third, foucauldian level, this concerning development may be an unsurprising twist on a truth that modernity and many strands of postmodernity have tried to ignore: that there is an unavoidably public dimension to our individual selves. The culture of narcissism that social networking promotes seems to play on this logic, since the imperative of social networking is to make the individual self a subject of public scrutiny. Conversely, in his Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault provided a compelling revival of the premodern notion that individuality is not self-generating but emerges from a belonging to a collective. What makes the furore over Instagram interesting is that we see yet another inversion, where the publicisation of the individual has become co-opted by corporations for private profit, rather than public benefit. Thus, while the public dimension of the individual is maintained, it is also subverted towards private exploitation.
However one looks at it, this story should make us rightfully wary of the cries of “invasion of privacy” in two respects. On the one hand the culture of postmodernity, of which social networking is but one of many pointy ends, and its imperative of visibility is pushing every corner of our selves out and transforming it into public spectacle (take for instance this analysis on the blog of Melinda Tankard Reist of a recent incident involving Anne Hathaway). On the other hand, we must be wary also in thinking that the problem could be resolved merely by asserting the neat distinction between private and public, for as mentioned before, the idea of the hermetically sealed private category is a recent and artificial one.
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